BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN — Twelve adults with autism have been employed to run SMARTER Brunei’s new BJAK Café after completing the non-profit organisation’s apprenticeship programme.

From working in the kitchen to serving customers, the employees with autism will work in four- to five-hour shifts at the new café, which was launched on Tuesday at its premises next to the entrance of Anggerek Desa Swimming Pool.

SMARTER president Pg Zamri Pg Hj Bujang said BJAK Café not only aims to raise awareness on autism, but also promote the acceptance of individuals with the developmental disorder.

“BJAK not only means smart or clever in Malay but for us, BJAK embodies what we hope this café will be: B stands for Bringing, J for Joy, A for Aspirations and K for Kindness.

“We hope and want to bring joy, aspirations and kindness to anyone who sets foot in the café,” he said.

The employees were trained under SMARTER Brunei Autism Centre for Adults’ (BACA) apprenticeship programme at Kg Sg Hanching.

In 2018, the NGO opened its first bistro and café at BACA centre, which has been turned into a training centre to prepare adults with autism to enter the job market.

The success of the first café in Kg Sg Hanching prompted SMARTER to expand after reporting $20,000 in sales within two years, despite not opening daily and only relying on pop-up events and exhibitions to generate revenue.

SMARTER president Pg Zamri (2nd L), MCYS minister YB Dato Hj Aminuddin Ihsan (C) and Council for the Welfare of Persons with Different Abilities President Dato Hj Mohd Alimin (R) at the launch of SMARTER’s BJAK Café. Photo: Ain Bandial/The Scoop

Building an inclusive workplace

SMARTER CEO Didi Malai Abdullah said the minister of culture, youth and sports had suggested opening a new café to provide job opportunities for the apprentices.

“We were worried about investing too much [but YB Major General (Rtd) Dato Paduka Seri Hj Aminuddin Ihsan POKSMDSP Hj Abidin] said he will give us the space and chance to operate without worrying too much about [funding],” she said.

The Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports is providing the rent-free space at Anggerek Desa Swimming Pool for two to three years.

“What made it appealing to us is that our kids and adults with autism love to swim. If they ever needed to take a break, they could just go into the pool and then return to work,” Didi said.

“This is the perfect way of showing how you can be autism-friendly. It doesn’t take a lot of money to be autism-friendly and have inclusive policies in your café or business,” she added.

Didi added that SMARTER will continue to find ways to hire more people who are autistic, and make it more comfortable for them to succeed in the workplace.

A staff prepares a drink at the SMARTER BJAK Café during its opening on June 16, 2021. Photo: Courtesy of SMARTER

Pg Zamri said SMARTER plans to transform the “café of their dreams” in three phases.

“The first phase involves market research, trial and error, and testing the menu with our target audience. We hope to move into the next phase within three to six months after the start of operations,” he said.

The president added, “We discovered that operating a café is not easy and funding has been our biggest [issue], but we believe we can make anything work as long as we are willing to put in the work”.

Under the first phase, the new café has undergone minor renovations with funding from SMARTER, parents and friends of individuals with autism.

Didi said the NGO has spent about $15,000 to fund the renovations thus far.

“We need around $30,000 to $35,000 for further  renovations and make this place better.”

A general view of BJAK Café at the Anggerek Desa Swimming Pool. Photo: Rasidah HAB/The Scoop

SMARTER seeks collaborations to spruce up café

SMARTER is seeking collaborations with companies who are interested in funding the café renovations under the second phase of development.

“If needed, we might do a fundraiser but we have to bear in mind that [SMARTER] is also having funding issues.

“We hope that this café’s profits will go back to the society as the true embodiment of a social enterprise. I’m hoping to get collaborations with companies, private agencies, anybody who like to help make this dream a reality,” she added.

Under phase three, BJAK Café will be offering birthday packages, catering services and food delivery to workplaces end of this year or early 2022.

Seven architecture students from Politeknik Brunei designed the BJAK Café.

The design incorporated a teal and yellow colour scheme to encourage a sense of belonging, assimilation and understanding among society and individuals with different abilities.

The BJAK Café is open from 9am to 5pm on Monday to Thursday. The café is closed on Fridays from 12pm to 3pm, and open from 9am to 8pm during weekends.